The 4 critical factors to planning a successful project

Learn the importance of project estimating, setting up your team, scheduling tasks, and balancing priorities.

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This article has been adapted by Wes Jones, author of the "Producer Playbook: A Collection of Guidelines and Best Practices for Producers and Project Managers".

No matter what it is you’re working on, uncertainty is a common factor in every project.

Uncertainty about how much a project will cost (project cost estimation), who will work on it, how long it will take, and whether or not it will ultimately achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself and your client.

With that in mind, here are the four things you should focus on during the project planning phase to ensure that everyone agrees with (or at least understands) the approach before kicking things off.

1. Project Estimating

Every project is different, but that doesn’t mean you have to start from zero each time you need to make estimates. The best way to make sure you’re on the right track is to approach it from every angle. Consider similar projects, talk to your team, and understand what the client is expecting and how they’d like things to go. Along with that, your intuition will play a role in how you plan a project. Want a friendly tip? If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn’t.

Estimate the scope of work, based on similar projects

Looking at similar projects can help you determine how long something might take, the team size, and what specific skill sets you need to involve in order to get the job done. Keep in mind, however, that this is a starting point, not detailed directions.

Ask your team for their input

The most important thing you can do when planning a project is to get the rest of the team involved. If you try and go it alone you’ll only have your perspective to guide you, and you won’t have any input from the people who will actually be doing the work and know what it’s going to take to achieve your goals.

  • Approach your team individually
    Speak with everyone individually first to see what they’re thinking. This makes sure everyone feels involved and has ownership over the work they’ll be doing. It also lets you see whether you were accounting for everything or if the team is thinking of the project differently than you are.
  • Get together as a team
    After you have taken everyone's individual input and crafted an initial plan, you need to take it to the full team so they can see how everything is starting to fit together. During these meetings you can discuss if certain things are redundant, if there are ways to be more efficient, and you can gauge that you still have buy in from everyone after they see it as a whole. You’ll likely have to revise your plan and have a couple of these sessions before all is said and done. Trust me, they’re worth it!

Make sure everyone takes responsibility

Best for you to approach these discussions as questions of how and why with your team when they provide their estimations, rather than asking if they think your opinion is right. Having them detail for you how they formed their scope of work makes them responsible for it when the project becomes a reality. Also, having them talk through their approach encourages your team members to actually think about the specifics of what they’ll be doing, instead of simply agreeing with an abstract idea that you present them.


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2. Setting Up Your Project Team

The makeup of your team can quite literally make or break a project. Casting a team is something you’ll have to do for every project you undertake, and getting it right means looking at the overall picture to make sure you’re accounting for everything from the start.

Managing your team size

A smaller team is usually preferable as it puts your project in the most ideal position to be completed on time and at the quality you expect, without burning out your team members. A smaller team also reduces the number of communication channels, which means there’s less opportunity for misinterpretation or people simply missing something. While each discipline will likely request to expand their team size during the course of the project, the best approach is to work with them to understand and determine what the actual resource needs are and how those fit within the overall project plan.

Assigning tasks based on ability and real capacity

While on paper you might have multiple people who have the same role, each of them will have a different style, ability, and speed. Knowing your team will help you decide if you need more people to do a job or if one person can take it on themselves. Having a view of your team’s real capacity is important when planning and juggling the deliverables of numerous projects at once.

Planning and managing your team resources

That said, there may be a time when you don’t have the right resources in-house to do the job. Either they are fully allocated to another project or no one has the right skill set. In this situation you have two options, either bring in freelance contractors or hire a new employee to fill the role.

Questions to ask when considering these two options include determining whether you have the budget to hire a contractor, or whether the agency wants to expand the company’s skill set long term and offer this type of work again to other clients. There are pros and cons to each approach (and many other factors) that will determine how you fill out the team.

Creating and defining team goals

The planning phase is when you’ll want to work with the team to understand what their individual goals are for the project. Is there something different they’d like to try? A test or new idea they’d like the chance to prove? Or perhaps a roadblock they want to avoid?

Knowing these things ahead of time will help you put people in a position to succeed from the start, and also help you keep your team on track during the project, as you'll be able to recognize when somebody is feeling off or their individual ambitions have been pushed aside.

Factors in Project Planning

Project planning relies on communication and responsible team management.


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3. Scheduling Tasks to a Project Timeline

The timeline of the project will largely be determined by the client, as they often have deadlines they need to hit to meet certain business goals that are simply out of your control. However, setting clear expectations and agreeing on the timing of key deliverables is crucial.

Expectations vs. reality

While the client might have their own expectations of how long something should take, you need to take a realistic view of the project, your team’s capabilities, and the overall budget before determining if the expected timeline is feasible. If it is, great. If it’s not, you’ll need to develop an alternative set of options to present to the client when you meet to explain why their timeline can’t be met.

Working to a budget

A timeline issue is likely a budgeting issue, whether that budget is measured monetarily or based on a fixed resource capacity. Ensuring you plan your project timeline against a budget spend is a critical path to deliverability. By doing this up front, you’ll be able to plan ahead and ensure you have enough budget to secure and assign the required resources.

Keep in mind that one of the biggest uncertainties with project planning is not knowing in advance how long something will really take. Assigning more resources or people doesn’t necessarily mean the work will get done faster. Ideally, adding some buffer to your project timeline can help accommodate those unforeseen changes or dragging tasks.

4. Juggling and Balancing Project Priorities

The key to this is understanding that while some projects may be similar, no two will ever be identical. There are too many variables at play to think one will be the same as another. Different clients, different teams, different objectives.

All of these factors play a role in how a project takes shape, and finding the right balance between them is necessary to set your project up for success. You’ll have to consider the client’s goals, their budget, their timeline and expectations, as well as your team, their goals, your agency and the type of work that you want to take on now, and the type of work that you are working towards in the future. It’s up to you to develop a project plan that everyone is excited about and agrees to.

Two common scenarios that often affect the balance of project priorities are:

  • Limited Budget
    You may reduce the amount and fidelity of the deliverables to achieve a project fee that fits within the budget. This will reduce the overall scope of the project.
  • Accelerated Timeline
    You may add more resources (or more experienced resources) to the team to get work done quicker. This will increase the fees of the project.

What's next?

All of the information gathering and planning discussions come down to communication.

It’s up to you to ensure everyone involved with the project is on the same page and agrees with how things will go, what the outcome should be, and what will happen when something doesn’t go exactly to plan. These are the details in your final contract that will lead to the official project kickoff.

Since every decision up to now has been made based on assumptions, part of your plan and project kickoff should also include making sure everyone knows to expect that most plans don’t go exactly to plan.

Your project plan is likely to change along the way, but by taking care of these things in the beginning, you’ll be able to adapt quickly and won't be caught off guard, no matter what gets thrown your way.

Wes Jones is the author of the Producer Playbook — A 52+ page guide covering everything from contracts to meetings, kickoffs to retrospectives, emails to financials, and more. Download your copy here.

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